Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

18 January 2013

Digitising Manuscripts: The Condition Assessment

Digitisation is a great way to make unique and fragile manuscripts more available both for study and pleasure. The images can be accessed at any time of day and from anywhere in the world, without the risk of damage inherent in physically handling manuscripts. But before a British Library manuscript can go to the imaging studio to be photographed, it receives a condition assessment. A conservator looks at various aspects of the manuscript and its binding to decide if it can go straight to the imaging studio, or needs some minor repairs or preparation first, or should not be photographed at this time.

Harley MS 4051-4052  The textblock has split right down the spine – damage seen frequently in older bindings where the leather is adhered directly to the spinefolds.  Often the endbands also break, but here they have detached.  The book also has poor openings with much text hidden.  It will be listed for full conservation before digitisation.

Much of the time of a digitisation project conservator is spent on these condition assessments in order to answer one simple question: can this item be photographed safely? To make an informed decision, we look at each manuscript fully, recording its overall condition and specific damage - a process that may take an hour or more. We have standard risk assessments for activities such as taking a book from a shelf and delivering it to another location, but must estimate the likelihood of further damage during imaging for each item. Along the way, we record other useful information (such as size) and note any problems that need to be resolved.

R 16C V VI seals and sizes
Royal MSS 16 C V & VI.  Two textblocks of different sizes have been bound together making both vulnerable to edge damage and the entry of dirt.  Both manuscripts also have wax seals, which can leave pressure marks and abrasions on surrounding leaves and are themselves easily broken if the pressure on them is uneven.  Cleaning is needed before imaging, and extra care during it.

Damage is recorded systematically. Bindings are checked for split joints, loose sewing, degraded leather and suchlike, and the book’s normal opening angle is photographed. The textblock material is inspected: if paper, is it brittle or weak?; if parchment, is it gelatinised? Are there tears or missing areas, dirt, stains or mould-damage? We pay special attention to folds or pleats that hide text – opening them repeatedly risks damage at the creases. What about the inks and pigments? Are they corrosive or flaking? Are there signs that they are fugitive to light or water?

E2745 f164
Egerton MS 2745 f.164  Damp and mould have not only discoloured the parchment but made it weak and inflexible, resulting in splitting.  Many damaged folios of this manuscript were repaired and supported before it was last rebound, and it does not need further conservation before imaging, as the remaining weakness is unlikely to get worse.

If the assessment suggests the item cannot safely be imaged as it is, the conservator then notes mitigations. Simple preparatory work might include some surface cleaning of areas that are very grimy, to prevent dirt transferring from folio to folio as the book is handled. We generally indicate a maximum opening angle and may specify particular handling techniques, or allow the imaging technician extra time to set up heavy or over-sized items. The conservator can also request additional support from Collection Care during imaging. In extreme cases, conservators may do all the handling themselves.

E2787 loose gatherings
Egerton MS 2787  The sewing has broken and several gatherings are loose.  There is some risk that folios will be lost, but this kind of damage also makes it difficult to handle a bound manuscript properly during imaging without causing more harm.  Conservation is estimated at 2 hours.

Minor conservation treatment must sometimes be undertaken before digitisation. Often the binding is damaged: a board must be reattached or leather with red rot requires consolidation. Not all damage to the textblock needs intervention, but the project conservator will usually secure loose folios, repair tears that compromise the text, support areas affected by mould that might become more damaged by handling, and consolidate flaking pigments. An estimate of the time required for this work is made during the assessment.

E2808 typical opening
Egerton MS 2808 typical opening   Although the binding of this volume is undamaged, it does not open well enough to image all the text.  Removing the spine leather and linings requires an ethical judgement and is also time-consuming, especially since this is an oversized, heavy and very thick book which requires two people for safe handling.

Not every item we want to digitise is a bound book. Loose single sheets are easy to image flat, but unbound material is more easily damaged and may have torn and folded edges. When single sheets have fastenings to keep them in groups, these need to be removed before imaging and replaced after. The conservator assesses the time required to do this. Rolls can be imaged flat, but will be done in sections if they are long, and temporary cores must be provided for rolling/unrolling. Mounted objects can also be imaged flat, but require special handling, and thus take longer. Historically, some parchment and much papyrus has been mounted between glass, and there may be difficulties in getting good images without reflections.

R 1D II headcap
Royal MS 1 D II    Bound in vellum, which is extremely durable, but becomes inflexible as it ages. Here, repeated opening of the book has caused the joint to split, also damaging the endpapers.  The conservator will do minor repairs to prevent the board detaching or moving out of position.

The conservator’s role is to facilitate digitisation and make our manuscripts more accessible, so when would we decide a manuscript should not be digitised? Very occasionally, an item is just so large and/or heavy that it cannot be photographed safely with our existing equipment. In other cases, the scribe has given us a problem by writing text up to (and even around) the spine-fold. Even if the book opens well, parts of words will be missing in the photographs. The only way to access the complete text would be to disbind the book - something we rarely do, especially if it means altering an historic binding. (We understand that the physicality of a book, the materials used, the original binding technique, the stains and damage, also give important information to readers). Finally, an item that requires significant conservation may be excluded, because there is insufficient project time and funding to do the work.

A82957 f226 mould
Add. MS 82957, a 12th century Menologion damaged by water, mould and rodents.  The estimate for full conservation of the manuscript is 745 hours.  It was decided to spend just 58 hours on the most necessary repairs prior to digitisation.  The conservator will accompany the manuscript to the imaging studio and do all the handling. Issue of the manuscript will remain restricted until full conservation can be completed.

All the time that goes into condition assessments pays off. Up to 25% of items need some kind of intervention before photography, but most take just a few minutes to ensure that the manuscripts will not be further damaged during the imaging process. We are committed to making many more of our manuscripts available to researchers in this way, and to enrich the cultural life of the nation through these unique and beautiful artefacts.

Ann Tomalak, Conservator, Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project


Very interesting indeed. These sorts of barriers to digitisation are well worth knowing about. It is interesting that, in many cases, what we're looking at is also risks to preservation - the sort of issues that make digitising a risk suggest that the ms. needs attention anyway. In fact the examination may mean that an item in danger gets saved before damage gets worse.

Note that this entry has been cited at Books on Books, highlighting its relevance to the Harry Ransom Center's upgrade of it Gutenberg site.

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